He is forty-seven years of age, tall and lean, with fierce blue eyes. Thinner than he ought to be: the skin is tightly stretched on his face and his colour is too high – the effects of a recent brush with illness. The shooting jumpers, corduroys and walking shoes mark him down as English country middle class, an identity he has spent a lifetime escaping. He is English in his use of self-deprecation as a strategy of disguise. An indefatigable fabulist and storyteller, he laughs with a high merry cackle. A lapidary talker, an enviably economical writer.
He came to writing after a career at Sotheby’s. Each of his books escapes the last one: In Patagonia, a travel narrative and voyage of self-discovery; The Viceroy of Ouidah, a lushly coloured miniature about a Brazilian slaver in Dahomey; On the Black Hill, his only novel set in Britain, about the lives of two Welsh hill-farmer brothers; and now The Songlines, a novel of a journey in search of the Australian Aborigines’ songlines, and an inquiry into the origins of nomadism, storytelling and the roots of human restlessness.
He has been married to Elizabeth for more than twenty years. There are no children. They live in a raspberry-red clapboard farmhouse, which belongs on a Vermont hillside but is actually on the edge of sloping pastures in the Chilterns near Oxford. His sojourns here are a prelude or epilogue to travel. He is off next week to Ghana: Werner Herzog is shooting Cobra Verde, based on The Viceroy of Ouidah.